SOMETIMES new managers get a false impression of what they have inherited, but there were no such problems for Martin O'Neill yesterday.
As Sunderland’s new boss watched from the directors’ box, the problems he must address were laid bare.
For 70 minutes the Black Cats had the better of their encounter with Wolverhampton Wanderers, without playing well.
But Sebastian Larsson’s missed penalty caused mental disintegration symptomatic of a team at the wrong end of the table.
O’Neill will probably have heard and read many times already that Sunderland’s performances have been better than results, but on a cold Midlands day only Jamie O’Hara of Wolves and visiting goalkeeper Keiren Westwood looked out of place in a relegation scrap.
There was plenty of effort from players with a new boss to impress – at least from most – but little quality for O’Neill to look forward to working with.
Most of the Black Cats’ early success came down Wolves’ left.
When Larsson’s cross was half-cleared, Stephane Sessegnon volleyed at Wayne Hennessy. Nicklas Bendtner got underneath another delivery from the Swede, heading over, while Wes Brown nodded straight at the keeper from a corner.
But too many of his crosses missed their target, and when Larsson had the chance to shoot, the Black Cats’ top-scorer betrayed his lack of confidence with the soft option of a pass.
Despite Sunderland’s early dominance, Wolves looked marginally the more likely scorers.
O’Hara shot after a goalmouth scramble and Steven Fletcher headed the rebound goalwards, only for Westwood to save.
Midfielder O’Hara curled wide after Kieran Richardson fluffed a clearance, had a snap-shot comfortably saved and hit another effort at Wes Brown.
Dave Edwards volleyed wide, another chance from a clearance, this time by Brown.
Lee Cattermole looked in the mood to impress, but at times clumsiness undermined his energy. He was fortunate when he slipped dwelling on the ball facing his own net that Fletcher’s “goal” was scored from an offside position.
He made amends a couple of minutes later with an excellent tackle on Matt Jarvis, but late in the half picked up a booking for tripping Kevin Doyle which will keep him out of O’Neill’s first game.
Westwood made the save of the match in the 40th minute to deny Stephen Hunt, who had run in behind Phil Bardsley on to Jarvis’ cross, just pushing the ball beyond his far post.
Sessegnon looked as if he had opened the scoring late in the half from Richardson’s pass, only for Stephen Ward to slide in yards in front of the line to block.
Bendtner started the second half by wasting a wonderful opportunity created by Ji Dong-won and Cattermole. With no one prepared to close the ball down, he had plenty of time to pick his spot, yet could not.
His side crying out for inspiration, Richardson came to the rescue. When it comes to lifting Sunderland at their lowest ebb, the Londoner has been there, got the T-shirt.
In the first game after Darren Bent’s departure left Sunderland without a recognised striker he filled the breach brilliantly, scoring twice in a win at Blackpool and celebrating by waving a shinpad saying “God’s child” to the away fans.
Yesterday he wore a T-shirt proclaiming “I belong to Jesus”, and despite being moved from centre-forward to left-back, it got a triumphant airing.
Although caretaker manager Eric Black made only one change – enforced by a knock to Michael Turner – to Bruce’s last starting 11, Richardson was part of an extensive reshuffle which also saw Bardsley switch flanks and John O’Shea move to central defence so Ji could make his full debut.
Wolves had been enjoying a short spell of pressure but from their corner, Ji fed Cattermole, Bendtner backheeled to Sessegnon and Richardson raced on to the pass to rocket a near-post finish Hennessey swayed out of the way of.
Bendtner’s brilliance was the exception in an otherwise lethargic display. When Hennessey left his area to tackle Bardsley, the loose ball was begging to be put in the goal, but the Dane showed absolutely no interest.
With Hennessey forced to save Ji’s header from a Larsson cross, it seemed the Black Cats would secure a win, only for Larsson to encourage Wolves and provoke their fans.
His weak 73rd-minute penalty was easily saved. Justice had been done.
If there was a touch from Jody Craddock just before Larsson’s run took him into the penalty area, it was very faint and not worthy of the swallow-dive it produced.
Craddock was heading down the tunnel injured as Wolves got revenge 25 seconds later.
Jarvis crossed from the left and Fletcher, having crept behind Brown, headed an equaliser which shattered Sunderland confidence.
They were fortunate O’Hara dawdled when picked out by Jarvis. Brown smothered Ronald Zubar’s shot, as he later would a Sylvan Ebanks-Blake volley, but inbetween time dived across Jarvis’ cross without a decisive touch.
O’Hara did – with his arm – but Fletcher was allowed to volley the knock-down into the net.
The finish was ruthless and confident – everything Sunderland are not right now.